Fantasy in Contemporary Literature Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fantasy in Contemporary Literature

The following entry presents discussion and criticism of literature incorporating myth, legend, and other fantastical elements through 2003.

Fantasy, legend, and myths have been an integral part of literature through the ages. From such early allegorical texts such as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene to modern works like J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series, writers have used fantasy in novels, poetry, and short stories. Although fantasy is often studied as a genre, especially in discussions of books that focus on science fiction, the use of the fantastic as a literary element in books, poems, and drama has been a consistent trend across many genres and over many centuries. In the twentieth century in particular, fantasy has assumed a central place in literature, specifically as a structural and allegorical element that has allowed authors from varied backgrounds to tell their stories to a universal audience.

In explaining the importance of the fantastic in modern literature, T. E. Apter comments on the appropriateness of fantasy, writing that the essential purpose of fantasy in literature is, in effect, the same as realism, except fantasy literature often relates logical stories from the premise of the fantastic. However, Apter cautions against a too-literal interpretation of the correlation between fantasy and realism, noting that in modern literature in particular, fantasy is an integral element of an author's efforts to convey his or her ideas to the reader. The impact of the fantastic relies on the fact that the world presented in these stories seems to be real, yet everything is different. This discontinuity and disconnect imbues each phrase and all images in the text with layers of meanings and associations that almost create a new language. Discussions of fantasy in literature, especially that of female authors, often focus on this issue. The works of Toni Morrison, Susan Cooper, Anne Rice, and others have often been critiqued both in terms of their place in fantasy literature and as examples of works that creatively use language through the construct of the fantastic. Lucie Armitt notes that women writers often use fantasy elements, traditional myths, and legends to convey an alternative point of view. Similarly, Nancy A. Walker proposes that fantasy and irony are often used as interdependent narrative devices by female authors, who change the traditional usage of language in their works in specific and complex ways to convey the message of their text. Citing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Walker points to the opening sentences of the work as proof of how Atwood revises the mythologies of everyday life through her use of language.

Although elements of the fantastic have been a continued presence in literature through the centuries, especially during the Romantic and Gothic eras, in his overview of the fantastic in contemporary literature, Richard Alan Schwartz specifically comments on the importance of fantasy in modern literature. According to Schwartz, many modern writers have mined the world of the fantastic “as a way of combating the bleak aspects of our age,” and he cites works such as John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1967) and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) as examples of how the “fantastic can be used to deal with truth's uncertainty.” Neil Cornwell, in his study of the growth of the literary fantastic, has also made note of the fact that the fantastic was a dominant element in many works of modernist literature during the early part of the twentieth century. Identifying science fiction and horror literature as significant tangents of the literature of the fantastic, with which works of the pure fantastic share many characteristics, Cornwell draws a distinction between the two types of writing, proposing that works that belong to the realm of the pure fantastic often “stress on interfacing worlds” that seem to lie elsewhere, and yet have “mysterious connections with … normal reality.”

While a number of critics view the use of the fantastic as an effective means of confronting issues that are important in reality, an equal number of critics and authors believe in the sustaining power of fantasy because of the escape and release it provides. In their essay summarizing the reasons behind the popularity of such characters as Harry Potter and the commercial success of the film adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt point to the power of fantasy as a means of participating in worlds that play by different rules, ones that have their own histories, language, and vocabularies. Equally powerful, theorize Brottman and Sterritt, is the human compulsion to “immerse ourselves in the lives of others,” especially in cases where the protagonist offers a welcome refuge from the details of ordinary life. In addition to providing an escape, novels and stories dealing with the fantastic routinely deal with issues of sociological and theological significance. Thus, write Brottman and Sterritt, the most powerful fantasies operate on a dual level, using a combination of allegory and literal meaning to explore recognizable and pertinent human conflicts in a setting that is imaginative and extraordinary.